Tag Archives: Oklahoma City Thunder

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Oklahoma City Thunder

2012-2013 W-L: 60-22

New Faces: Ryan Gomes (Artland Dragons, Germany)

New Places: Kevin Martin (Minnesota)

Draft: Steven Adams (12), Andre Roberson (26), Alejandro Abrines (32), Grant Jerrett (40), Szymon Szewczyk (35, 2003)

The Spurs renewed, the Clippers reloaded, the Warriors reimagined, the Grizzlies retooled and the Rockets revamped.  In an offseason marked by the rich getting richer in an already loaded Western Conference, the Thunder stand alone.

On the surface, Oklahoma City’s relative summer inactivity is most optimistically construed as a lateral shuffle compared to the competition’s varying degrees of ascendant steps.  Losing a key if underrated cog in Martin without on-court compensation – not to mention adding developmental prospects like Adams and Roberson through the draft – means Oklahoma City will count almost entirely on internal progress from players already on the roster to pick up newly created slack.  For most teams, that’s not an optimal let alone realistic means to improvement.  Most teams, though, aren’t the Thunder.

Discounting the potential impact Martin’s absence could have on Oklahoma City is a major disservice to his play last season.  He accounted for four of the NBA’s 10 best three-man units in terms of offensive rating last season; no other player in the league can claim that feat.  Obviously, much of that incredible success stems from playing alongside Kevin Durant and/or Russell Westbrook, and the latter’s postseason injury and the Thunder’s resulting offensive struggles paint a more realistic picture of Martin’s limitations.  He’s clearly not the bellwether force that such lineup data suggests, but he deserved more credit for his role in OKC’s near-historic level offense last season nonetheless.

Replacing Martin’s influence won’t be easy.  In most any situation, the loss of such an efficient offensive player necessitates a single major offseason acquisition or a series of smaller ones; that production needs to be supplanted somehow, after all.  But this is the Thunder, and they have an advantage – well advantages, actually – no other team has: Durant and Westbrook.

Approaching their seventh and sixth NBA seasons respectively, the Thunder’s superstars have improved in every year of their careers thus far.  To expect anything less additional progress at this point – as they reach something close to the beginning of their primes – would be remiss.  These guys combine otherworldly talent with unmatched work ethics and tireless, frustrated dispositions, and they’ll play this season another year wiser as 25 year-olds.  Durant and Westbrook will be better this season, basically, and the Thunder are counting on that assumption to help soften the blow of Martin’s departure.

But they can’t play 48 minutes, and that’s where the play of this team’s ancillary pieces loom larger than ever.  There’s no Martin or James Harden here to carry a primary offensive burden when one or both of OKC’s stars is on the bench.  Reserve production will be a group effort this season as opposed to more of an individual one for the Thunder, and they’re relying on two young players, in particular,  to lead the charge.

Reggie Jackson is the biggest benefactor of Martin’s defection.  The third-year guard has been a wildly inconsistent performer in his career thus far, and was mostly an afterthought last season before finally getting consistent playing time after the new year.  But Jackson’s overall talent has always been obvious, and he put together a quietly impressive playoff series against Memphis in May, averaging 13.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 50% from the field.  More consistency from beyond the arc is the next step in his development three-point shooting is next to come – he shot 23.1% from deep during the regular season and 30.2% in the playoffs – and should it come, Jackson will emerge as one of the league’s best backup guards.  Not Martin nor Harden, certainly, but an extremely valuable player nonetheless.

Sophomore wing Jeremy Lamb will get his chance, too.  Acquired last fall as a centerpiece of the now much-maligned Harden trade, he played nearly as many games (21) for the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers as he did the Thunder (23) last season.  So while there weren’t many positives to glean from his rookie year, some point to his MVP-winning performance in June’s Orlando Summer League as reason for optimism this season and going forward.  Let’s just say his Orlando numbers of 18.8 points and 3.8 turnovers per game on 39.1% shooting leaves a lot to be desired.  But context matters here, too, and with the big boys Lamb will play a supporting role as opposed to the one he did this summer or even down in Tulsa.  He can contribute at this level, we can all agree; the question now is to what extent.

This is mostly moot, of course.  The fact is that Oklahoma City will be among the league’s three best offenses this season assuming health; development from Jackson, Lamb, Serge Ibaka or perhaps Perry Jones III won’t matter in that respect.  Durant and Westbrook are simply that good.  And once spring comes and rotations shorten, the presumed absence of a Harden/Martin-esque sixth man will prove inconsequential.

For the Thunder, it’s mostly about defense.  Will they make sound rotations? Will Westbrook and Ibaka exercise restraint going for blocks and steals? Can they protect the three-point line? Will they pound the defensive glass when the game slows down? After last season, the answer to all those once-vexing questions are encouraging; OKC didn’t finish fourth in defensive efficiency by accident.  There’s every reason to believe – the ‘loss’ of Martin and even addition of the ultra-versatile Roberson among them – they could be even better on that end in 2013-2014.

Which begs a final question: to which are those the Thunder don’t have a viable response? There just aren’t many if any, and that’s as encouraging a sign for this team’s championship hopes as anything else.  Oklahoma City is top-heavy with talented depth, offensively-oriented but defensive-minded, and boasts a roster suddenly not so green on playoff experience.  And though a list of simple offseason arithmetic won’t show it, they undoubtedly got better, too.  This organization preaches patience, process and culture; this comparatively quiet summer ensures all three.

The Thunder are on a short-list of teams with legitimate title aspirations, just as they’ve been since 2011.  And as long as Durant and Westbrook are around, odds are that will always be the case.

*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

Profile Paroxysm: Dwight Buycks and the Remaking of a Point Guard

Reputations are hard to shake, and even harder to change. Coming out of Marquette, Dwight Buycks had a reputation of a scoring point guard, a euphemism for a guard that can’t reliably run an offense.

Fast forward two years later, and Buycks — now having played in the NBA D-League and overseas — was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Summer League team in Orlando. Buycks said his goals in Orlando was “to come here and let the world know what I’ve been working on: picking and choosing when I can get my shots and shots for others.”

Perhaps this sounds like the beginning of a story you’ve heard thousands of times before: A player comes to Summer League, promising to have completely retooled his game, only to show that his prior weaknesses still remain. This is not that story.

The 24-year old Buycks spent last season playing for BVM Gravelines  in France, where he was named MVP of LNB Pro A, averaging 18 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly three assists per game while leading his team to a number one seed in the playoffs. Such honors and accomplishments might sway a player to stay in Europe and forget his NBA dreams, but the NBA had always been Buycks’ goal, and no amount of overseas success would change that.

There was no jolt of inspiration, no prophetic visions demanding Buycks change his scoring ways. Those are fit for fairy tales, not real life. The need for reformation was a gradual realization, one that came after a good deal of reflection.

“After reevaluating myself, I wanted and needed to become a complete point guard,” said Buycks. “Overseas, I scored a lot, but that was my job. At this level, [my job] isn’t going to be scoring, it’s going to be running the offense and getting guys shots.”

In the Thunder’s first Summer League game, Buycks the scorer was nowhere to be found. In his place was a player that always thought pass first, penetrating the lane not with the intent to score, but to suck in defenders and sling the ball out to a perimeter shooter. His eyes were constantly, incessantly scanning the floor, searching for an open teammate.

Buycks dished 13 assists in that first game, each one trumpeting the arrival of a point guard transformed. And while he never matched that number again in Orlando or Las Vegas, he played every game with the same, steady, unselfish demeanor.

An oft-heard skepticism concerning scoring guards attempting to remold their game as a passer is whether they have the necessary court vision to do so. Luckily, to hear Buycks tell it, he always had the vision, it was just a matter of properly harnessing it. To do so, he studied the bread and butter play of most NBA offenses, the pick and roll, as well as those who’ve mastered it — among them, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. “I watched a lot of film, both mine and of other players, (I wanted) to take pieces of other NBA players’ games and put it into my own,” said Buycks. The most important lesson Buycks gleaned from studying those prolific pick and roll operators was that of patience.

“(I have to) wait for that big to set a good screen,” Buycks said. “Because that’s what frees me up, which means the opponent has to help, and if they fight to get back to me, that means (the big and I) can have a pick and pop. Or, if their big runs back, I get to attack, and someone that’s not my man has to come over, meaning someone else is open.”

Buycks became more than just a capable passer, however;  in both Orlando and Vegas he was at times downright creative with his distribution. He’d whip no-look, over-the-shoulder passes to his big in in the pick and pop, or get deep into the lane, nearly under the basket, and rise only to wrap the ball around the back of the leaping defender to give his man an easy dunk.

His passing was in fact the first thing Rex Kalamian, an assistant coach of the the Oklahoma City Thunder and the head coach of the Thunder’s Summer League team commented on when asked about Buycks.

“He’s a willing and able passer and a very good pick and roll player,” said Kalamian. “Not only does he have the ability to get into the paint, he has the ability to find guys on the perimeter. When he drives, three or four defenders collapse on him, and he’s gotten a lot or our guys open shots because of his penetration and ability to get to the rim.”

The Thunder wasn’t the only team to take note of Buycks’ remarkable reformation. Buycks was supposed to play for the Miami Heat’s Summer League team in Las Vegas, but his performance in Orlando promptly changed those plans. Suitors both foreign and domestic pursued Buycks, and before the Orlando Summer League even ended, Buycks agreed to a multiyear deal with the Toronto Raptors.

That Toronto had interest in Buycks was no coincidence. Jeff Weltman, Toronto’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, used to be the Assistant General Manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, who worked out Buycks after he left Marquette. At the time, Weltman thought Buycks could eventually be a very good player, but needed to time to develop and address his issues. Following his exploits in Orlando, Weltman felt he had done just that.

When asked if he was surprised at the drastic changes in Buycks’ ability as a passer, Weltman beamed and softly shook his head. “Knowing the kind of guy he is, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Weltman. “He’s an incredibly hard worker. If [running the offense] was his weakness, he was going to find a way to attack it, and it was only a matter of time before he found his way into the league.”

While playing with his new team in Las Vegas, Buycks showed that his still very much existent scoring abilities could work in concert with his improved passing. He averaged 23 points per game on 15 shots (a stark contrast with his numbers in Orlando, where he averaged just 9.5 points on nearly seven shots per game), while still handing out seven assists per game.  Very few of his shots were those of a gunner. They came within the offense, when the timing and situation made sense for Buycks to channel his scoring mentality.

Inflexibility can be a death sentence to NBA hopefuls. If a player refuses to adapt or adjust, to change his game in a way that results in a lesser but more stable role, their time in the league will be counted in quarters, not seasons. We’ve seen this countless times with players that have been nothing else but “the man” everywhere they go, only to find themselves hopelessly out of their depths once they arrive in the NBA. Unable or unwilling to find other ways to contribute to the team, the player slowly drifts out of relevance.

But not every NBA aspirator must follow this unfortunate path. For those who realize their future in the NBA depends on their ability to aid a team in areas besides scoring, and who work tirelessly to cultivate their skills in those other areas, a spot on an NBA roster remains a possibility. Dwight Buycks proved as much this summer.

“Hard work pays off. I worked hard down in Orlando and gave myself a chance. The Raptors saw me, and now I have a home; it’s a blessing,” said Buycks. “I’ve had a long journey of working, and the journey’s just started.”

When it falls down, who you gonna call now?

lucidtech | Flickr

Noam and Amin try to break down what’s going on with Miami, where Indiana’s future is taking them, and how teams can be successful over the long haul.

Noam: This Heat-Pacers series has been something of a basketball treat. All games have been competitive, excepting those in which Udonis Haslem goes 8 of 9 from the field (which, incredibly, amounts to more than one game). Paul George and Roy Hibbert have made themselves household names. Chris Andersen LITCHERALLY hasn’t missed a shot. And that LeBron guy is pretty good. Having seen these two squads matched up two years in a row, I would gladly sign up for another four or five.

You posit an interesting question on Twitter, though: could the Pacers possibly be considered as favorites in any future permutations of this series? Of Miami’s core, only LeBron, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are on the right side of 30. More importantly, Dwyane Wade, supposedly among the younger-oldies at 31, has seen fluctuations between his prime self and a sadder, broken down version happen frequently and violently. On the other side, Indiana’s starting wings are 22 and 23, with latter doubling as a third-team All-NBA premier wing defender. Roy Hibbert is 26, George Hill is 27.

But Indiana, for all its up-and-coming appeal, does have a major age concern. That would be David West, 33 by the time 2013-14 will tip off. He had ACL surgery two years ago, and while he seems to have recovered admirably, he plays a very physical game. Indiana’s strength is in their five man unit, but if one declines sharply, are we sure that balance isn’t irrevocably disrupted? Could growth on the wings, as well as the incremental improvements Hill and Hibbert project to make as they hit their prime, be enough to offset West’s age?

Amin: First of all, I don’t want your Chris Traeger reference to go unacknowledged. Well done, sir.

Second of all, yes my question is interesting. That’s sort of what I was alluding to. Indiana’s core–aside from West–is on the upswing. I could see West decline (as you said, he’s 33, he had ACL surgery, and he plays a tough, low-post game), but he looks like he’s declining gradually. I think that’s kind of the most ideal situation for any player in any sport, but especially for a guy who plays how he does. West will be slightly less effective next year, but he won’t have a stark drop off. Hibbert should improve, right? Will he make up for any potential deficiencies in West? Will Indiana let Hansbrough walk and pick up a backup PF who has a little more offense up his sleeve? Maybe Indiana can pounce on Thomas Robinson’s availability and play him heavy minutes behind West? Wowee.

Then, you’ve got the potential re-addition of Granger. Assuming Granger can play at even 75% of his former self… that’s pretty good. Granger is an effective scorer and a great defender. He gave LeBron fits during their intra-division CLE-IND series a few years ago. Granger also doesn’t seem like the type of player who would be difficult to fit back into a Pacers-style offense or defense. And based on the Pacers’ slower offense and their need for a wing upgrade over Gerald Green, slotting Paul George at the 2 (with Lance Stephenson behind) and Granger at the 3 seems like it would make the Pacers really good without causing extra stress/undue injury to Granger and his recover. And when I say “good” I mean “really really good.”Back to Miami real quick: Even with a very effective post game, LeBron + a bunch of other guys is probably not a championship team, right? That’s what existed in Cleveland, and it was proven time and again that LeBron needed a bit more reliability from the rest of the roster. That reliability came in Miami in the form of 1 guy who can get to the free throw line at will to close any gap (Wade) and another guy who is essentially guaranteed to make any shot if he’s wide open (Bosh). Those two players were not available in Cleveland. I am saying this as an unabashed Cleveland homer and someone who is rooting for a team with TYLER HANSBROUGH to beat the Heat.

Sorry about the Cleveland-aside. FOCUS. Ahem, OK. So, what I’ve noticed during this series is that the Pacers have been VERY good at preventing LeBron and Wade from living at the free throw line. As Derek alluded to in his piece, they’ve also effectively neutralized Chris Bosh’s impact by drawing him away from the basket on nearly every possession and contesting every shot he puts up. Miami has been relying on LeBron (as it should) and a 20-point performance by random role player X on any given night. Last night, it was Udonis Haslem. Haslem played really well, and the Heat needed every bucket he made–if not for their points then for their momentum.

When you look at the Heat’s roster, LeBron and Bosh are still in their primes, Cole and Chalmers are still young, and pretty much everyone else is a dinosaur in NBA years. Also, Chris Bosh is still possibly a dinosaur, but for other reasons (JOKES!). Going into next season–and more important the next postseason–if you have this same roster, you have LeBron still in his prime, a Bosh that people can figure out, an OK Chalmers/Cole backcourt (OK in Miami, average or less elsewhere), a Wade whose bad nights are starting to outnumber is good nights, a Ray Allen/Shane Battier combo that not doing its only required task of making open 3s, a revolving door of bigs, and Udonis Haslem. That’s… not gonna cut it.

Sorry, guess that wasn’t quick. But as it stands now, Indiana’s got options and are generally moving uphill. The Heat are still going to be good, but with their cap situation, they’re really only going to be able to make changes around the edges… and right now, their potential long term problems are with their core.

What do you think the next step for both teams will be to make sure we’ve got a rematch of them in the ECF next year?

Noam: It’s hard to throw out a foolproof ECF plan just because so many things can go wrong – injuries, luxury tax, injuries, random bounces, injuries, Nate Robinson catching fire, injuries. My gut says Miami is pretty much fine staying the course, as Erik Spoelstra would say, using the mini-MLE to get another 3-and-D guy (but maybe a less decrepit one this time, eh?) and gambling on a few minimum deal bigs. Indiana might be more interesting – I think convincing cases can be made for both keeping and trading Danny Granger, West is a free agent and could potentially come out of this summer either overpaid or in another jersey, the Pacer bench is epically horrendous. Also, after they refused to give up the 23rd pick in the draft for J.J. Redick, I demand that they either sign J.J. Redick or find a way to draft an immediate contributor with that pick. DEMAND IT, I SAY. HEAR ME, DONNIE?! However, I will immediately turn on my designation of Indiana being more interesting than Miami and ask you this question: is Miami’s run for a repeat title a historic abberation? This whole Wade business creates a unique vibe around the Heat – the way they came together and the mere existence of a 28 year old LeBron James makes them seem dynastic, and yet, as covered earlier, they might just be headed for a decline. We’ve seen teams win the title in a manner that seemingly dooms the following decade (Jordan Bulls, Duncan Spurs, any Laker title team ever), and we’ve seen teams win titles while giving the impression that they’re about to fall off from that level (the 2011 Mavs are a prime example of that), but do you remember any other team ever looking like it may just be both?

Amin: There are three important variables in this evaluation: 1) The CBA and salary cap, 2) Are any of the things that LeBron/Wade/Bosh do things that other players can do? and 3) What is Miami’s draft outlook looking like?

If you want this 3-man core to be dynastic, then the ret of the roster needs to be filled out in the same way as San Antonio’s. You gotta draft, develop, and trade your way into good parts that fulfill some of the tasks (or cover the deficiencies of) your core guys. And you gotta have the money to do it. If you do, you start to play your core guys fewer minutes as they get older, but the system is locked down. Alternatively, you can do what Dallas does and break the bank, stack, and reload the roster later around 1 or 2 pieces.

Right now, the Heat have a lot of good players, one great player, and two guys in between that are injured so are playing as good-level. Now, San Antonio has definitely recovered from a situation like that, but they’ve also consistently had draft picks and a well-managed cap. There’s a good chance Miami can pick up the same great play next year–like 99% certainty if Wade is healthy–but the nature of the Heat’s management of those 3 Spursian variables points to them not being able to turn this team into a 3+ championship dynasty like they hubristically promised.

In today’s CBA, is 3 rings the best anyone can do? Will the Spurs be terrible after their core retires/leaves? Can any team maintain contender or semi-contender status for 10+ years anymore? 5+ years, even?

Noam: The Thunder will be the ultimate test case for that, won’t they? They’ve hit all the theoretical checkpoints by drafting a transcendent star in Durant, finding another all-star to flank him in Russ, and being good enough early enough so his prime isn’t wasted. It’s what the Cavs couldn’t do with LeBron – they got to the Finals in his fourth year, one year ahead of the pace Durant set for OKC, but they did it with a supporting cast that was mostly veterans and role players. As LeBron continued to grow, they wilted instead. I think that’s the point that makes San Antonio so unique – David Robinson sitting out in 96-97 gave them their two cornerstones as a starting point, and they capitalized even further on that by inexplicably picking up two more in Tony and Manu. Without discrediting their developmental system, there are only so many such players percolating through depth charts, and grabbing several of them closely enough to have them all hit their primes together (or, in two different batches) requires immense amounts of luck.

Could it happen again? Sure, in theory. It’s hard to say if there are any other candidates for such a run, though. The Pacers are trying, but Paul George isn’t LeBron or Durant, and Hibbert is more Ibaka than Westbrook. Since this has somehow become a heavily anti-Cleveland exchange, we should point out that Kyrie might be that kind of transformative talent, and is being smartly surrounded by players his age, though none of the Waiters/Thompson/Zeller(/Nerlens Noel?) seems to be of the Westbrook caliber. There are some other tandems that one might throw out there – Chris Paul/Blake, Rose/Noah, Rubio/Love, Harden/Morey Acquisition X, Andrew Wiggins/Whoever Is On The Roster That Drafts Andrew Wiggins – but all are stretches, whether because they are dependent on unknown qualities, or because the known qualities have so far been lacking.

Is that CBA-designed or just plain happenstance? I would call it the latter, but it’ll be hard to tell without the benefit of hindsight. After all, this Spurs stretch is an outlier not just for the 2010s, but throughout NBA history. Outside of Red Auerbach being decades ahead of the curve, the Lakers continuously getting hall of fame centers, and the greatest player of all time existing, these things tend not to happen more often than they do. Again, the viability of the model could hinge on where OKC lands, with the Harden trade as the potential turning point. It’s an interesting wrench in that it simultaneously rid them of a third all-star, but brought in some assets that, if maximized, could theoretically bring in some of those young assets to develop in the Spursian manner you mentioned. If their run is cut shorter than we envisioned when this team came together, the Harden trade could become the turning point in NBA dynasty building.

Which brings us back to the Heat. They seem to be staring down some financial issues of their own – they’re scheduled to be repeater tax payers the moment such designations become available. If Wade’s knees don’t ruin everything, could his contract? Could Bosh’s? Are they due for a Harden trade of their own? Or, conversely, LeBron walking next summer before his supporting cast is torn apart? God, these would be great questions to discuss retroactively during all the free time we’ll have in the 2017 lockout.

Amin: Game 6 seemed to exacerbate all the same questions we had after Game 5. It’s going to be tough to figure out what Miami needs to do, but they need to do something. Be it a Harden-type trade, a use of the amnesty provision, any other type of trade that creates some complementarity and reliability… something. I don’t think they anticipated their core becoming unstable like this so quickly. And I don’t think any of us did either.

James Harden Is Gone, Deal With It

It has become a common refrain revolving around a suddenly disappointing Oklahoma City playoff run, something of a go-to move once the head-shaking and the Perk-wringing ceases:

“Poor Kevin Durant had to do everything without Russell Westbrook and James Harden”.

At its very core, the statement is factually accurate. The load thrust upon Durant during this postseason was monstrous, and eventually led to his downfall at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. But it is also partially borne out of a sentiment that is 6 months out of date. Yes, Westbrook’s absence has been a humongous blow to the Thunder’s title chances, as injuries to top 10 players worldwide are wont to do. But the absence of Harden hurts the Thunder just as much as the absence of prime Hakeem Olajuwon hurts the Thunder – both of them would help, both of them wear Rockets jerseys instead, and we should move on.

Criticism of the Harden trade is hardly new. It has been a prominent thread upon the NBA discussion spool since Sam Presti and Daryl Morey shocked NBA observers three days before the start of the regular season, will likely remain such until Kevin Durant raises Oklahoma City’s inaugural NBA championship, and even then, may return if Houston matches with a Larry O’Brien of their own. All-world contributors rarely get traded by contenders; whether Presti knew that Harden is such a player or not, willingly declining to retain his services for the following decade is a historical outlier. Morey, for his part, gambled on Harden being this sort of player, and is now watching his creation pay off in the form of long-term relevance.

My issue with the Harden talk, however, stems from what is either a conceptual misunderstanding or wilful ignorance of what the trade was supposed to accomplish.

I don’t think there is a single soul who thinks this team wouldn’t have been better had The Bearded One been there to come off the bench instead of Kevin Martin (who, to be fair, had a decent if inconsistent playoff run). This includes Sam Presti. Trading Harden wasn’t done with this season in mind – otherwise, Presti wouldn’t have gone for a trade that includes only one rotation player in Martin and three long-term prospects in Jeremy Lamb and two future first round picks. Rather, the idea behind the Harden trade was a wager that the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka core was enough to contend long-term to allow a Harden sacrifice of sorts in the name of financial and roster flexibility.

Was that idea misguided? Common logic dictates that once a title is within your grasp, an immediate full-on pursuit is the only reasonable plan. The NBA becomes volatile once timelines are stretched to multiple years, with multiple future dynasties having dissolved before they’ve even managed their initial ascension over the course history. Within said prism, Presti’s decision is a too-cute attempt to juggle both immediate and future fruit.

That said, Oklahoma City’s regular season performance indicates that this current core, even Harden-less, is indeed title-caliber. The Thunder blew the league away in average margin of victory, which has a strong correlation with playoff success, and matched their typically potent offense with their first top 5 defensive outfit of the Kevin Durant era. By all accounts, this team was a major Miami-shaped hurdle away from the title, and that hurdle was possible, if not probable, for a clearing.

If this seems like a long-winded attempt to make the story about the Westbrook injury, well, it is. Russ is just too big a variable to presciently dissect any other part of this current’s team makeup. While the stagnant offense and the Scott Brooks question (and, as a byproduct, the Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher questions) are concerns, confidently stating that they would or would not ultimately be the downfall of this squad with Westbrook’s meniscus remaining intact are but speculation. As is the baseless claim that had the team both kept Harden and seen the same Westbrook injury (though, without Harden, the Rockets never make the playoffs and Patrick Beverley can’t run into Russ, but then again, without Harden maybe the Rockets never sign Beverley in the first place and instead he signs with the Utah Jazz who would have surely been the 8th seed with the Rockets out of the picture, except, there was no Harden trade, right, so I bet the Mavericks would have traded for Kevin Martin instead, and they really needed more scoring, so with Martin I bet they make the 8th seed and they don’t have Beverley and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed).

Moving Harden did not doom this title run. It lowered the odds in the name of the future. The question, then, is not whether Sam Presti’s long-term trade was, indeed, a long-term improvement. And while it’s not looking good, it’s impossible to say so early on. Yes, Jeremy Lamb did not impress in his rookie season… but the point guard who just sunk the Thunder, Mike Conley, was a bust three years in. Yes, Harden is a franchise player any way you try to analyze his game, but those touches and that stature were unavailable in Oklahoma City, and it’s impossible know how he would have developed with those restrictions. Yes, the pick OKC will get from Toronto will probably be in the lower teams of a terrible draft… but good players emerge from such spots every now and then, much like Serge Ibaka (24th, 2008) or Reggie Jackson (24th, 2011) have for these exact same Thunder. And with the exception of one Cole Aldrich, Presti’s drafting acumen has been proven almost every time he’s stepped to the plate.

I personally don’t think it was a good move – Harden is too good, and that team was too special, with three young stars growing and bursting upon the stage together – but I also don’t know how the future pans out. Presti has somehow backed himself from being a leaguewide golden boy to having somewhat of a burden of proof, but he’s done an excellent job before, and will probably make good moves again. Pointing to the Harden trade as the move that dismantled the team of the 2010s when the Thunder have neither seized hold of the decade nor lost their grip on it is premature.

Lion Face/Lemon Face 5/16/13: Don’t Forget Your Towel

Grit! Grind! Dunks! Classic Dwyane Wade! LeBron flopping! Towels! Let’s take a look at the best and worst from last night.

 

Lion Face: Memphis Grizzlies

It wasn’t easy, and it was rarely pretty, but the Grizzlies move on to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.  Zach Randolph (28 points, 14 rebounds) and Mike Conley (13 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds) were terrific in the series-clincher, attacking the Thunder at perhaps their two weakest positions. Congratulations, Memphis.

Lemon Face: Tony Allen

Courtesy of SBNation

Courtesy of SBNation

Tony, didn’t you learn anything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? Never forget your towel! Seriously, this is what sparked Oklahoma City’s insane near-comeback. (And yes, I realize it was a shirt, but the title of this post and the Hitchhiker reference don’t exactly work with a shirt, so back off).

Lion Face: Tayshaun Prince

Raise your hand if you thought Prince still had this kind of dunk in him. Put your hand down, liar.

Lemon Face: Kendrick Perkins

One look at Perkins’ numbers in the semifinals forces the face to scrunch and sour in such an extreme manner that it resembles, well, Kendrick Perkins. The sultan of scowl shot 17.6% for the entire series, notching a PER of -.72. What’s that? You want visuals? Trust me, you don’t. No, seriously, you don’t. Fine, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Courtesy of NBA.com/Stats

Courtesy of NBA.com/Stats

 

Have you finished wiping up the blood that seeped from every orifice? Good. Maybe next time you’ll listen to me.

Lion Face: Dwyane Wade

Wade, knee troubles and all, put on a vintage Wade performance in the fourth quarter, shooting a perfect 3-of-3, including two eurostep-powered floaters that registered high on the nostalgia meter.

 

Lion Face: Chicago Bulls

Hats off to this team. Battling through injuries, fatigue and overblown, undeserved criticism, they beat the Nets in seven games, gave the Heat a hell of a fight, and gave us a few Nate Robinson moments we’re unlikely to forget any time soon.

 

Lemon Face: LeBron James

All NBA players flop. The one who say they don’t flop? Guess what, they flop. So while LeBron James’ flop shouldn’t really be anything noteworthy, I’m still putting it here because it was pretty ridiculous.

Courtesy of SBNation

Courtesy of SBNation

 

Profile Paroxysm: The Education of Reggie Jackson

The Thunder’s selection of Reggie Jackson in the 2011 NBA draft was surprising, to say the least. Clearly, the Thunder didn’t bring in Jackson to supplant Russell Westbrook, but with super-sub Eric Maynor firmly entrenched as the team’s back-up point guard, it was hard to see where Jackson figured into the Thunder’s plans.

Sam Presti, in his press conference on the night of the draft, said of Jackson: “He’s a guy that is a willing learner. He’s a guy with great athletic ability. He’s a guy that can shoot the ball. And he’s a guy that really understands that he has room to grow and wants to improve. And that’s what his focus is.”

That learning process sped up in Jackson’s rookie season after Maynor tore his ACL just nine games into the lockout-shortened season. Jackson, however, failed to make much of an impact, averaging just 3.1 points per game while shooting thirty-two percent from the field and twenty-one percent from beyond the arc. The Thunder signed Derek Fisher, and Jackson’s minutes quickly diminished.

In this, his second season, Jackson’s improved play, coupled with Maynor’s slower-than-expected recovery from his ACL tear, inspired enough confidence in the Thunder to trade Maynor to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving Jackson as the team’s clear-cut back-up point guard.  The increase in minutes—17.8 minutes per game after the Maynor trade, versus 11.8 prior—and responsibilities granted Jackson a greater opportunity to show his talents. An even greater, though unfortunate, opportunity arose just a few weeks ago, when the Thunder lost Westbrook for the remainder of the playoffs due to a meniscus tear. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jackson was thrust into a starting role for a team many picked to represent the Western conference in the NBA Finals.

Injuries, be it to a role player or a star, are both unfortunate and inevitable parts of the game. And when one player goes down, the next in line has to be ready to step up and fill their predecessor’s role.  Keyon Dooling, a 13-year NBA veteran, has seen more than his fair share of these “Next Man Up” situations, and knows the value of this always-ready mentality. “Being ready and mentally focused, and having that confidence in yourself knowing that you can play. It’s a catch 22, getting to play behind somebody as great as (Westbrook), because you don’t get to play that much, but you get to learn a lot. He’s shown in a short amount of time that he’s a good player.”

Jackson is no Westbrook, but Dooling does see parallels in their playing styles. “Their games are similar: [they’re both] athletic, good with the ball, have size and can pull up.”

Nick Collison, who has been with both Westbrook and Jackson since their respective rookie seasons, also notices the similarities between the two. “They’re both guys that like to attack off the dribble, and both can make jump shots.”

In fact, taking and making more shots is one of the biggest reasons Jackson’s filled in so admirably for Westbrook.

Per NBA.com, Jackson is attempting nearly three more three-pointers in the playoffs (4.1) than he did the regular season (1.5), an uptick Jackson attributes to sharing more time on the court with Kevin Durant. “Playing with KD more, everybody’s collapsing, so I’m getting better looks,” says Jackson, who knows that knocking down those shots is key to taking pressure off Durant. “I have to continue to believe in myself and work on it.”

Collison is impressed with Jackson’s production as a starter, and attributes the second-year guard’s improvement to an increased comfort level within the team. “Early in their careers, it’s tough for all players that get limited minutes, especially point guards, to know exactly what to do. But he (Jackson) is a lot more comfortable. When he has chances to attack, he’s doing it. He’s pulling up or making the pass when it’s not there.”

The circumstances may not be ideal, but Jackson now has the opportunity to put those lessons learned observing Westbrook to use at time when the Thunder needs him the most. Says Collison: “It’s huge to lose Russell, but this has been huge for Reggie to be able to get time and experience. He’s really improved and we’re counting on him.”

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com

15 FOOTER, 4/29/13: Losing is not an option

Before we get to previewing tonight’s games, you really need to take a few minutes and read the incredible, powerful Sports Illustrated piece on Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay player in any of the “Big Four” men’s professional sports leagues. Today was undoubtedly a watershed moment in sports, and I would be remiss in my duty to cover the latest news going on in the NBA without linking to the article at hand. Now, on to the games tonight…

Chicago at Brooklyn (7:00 PM, TNT)

Interesting decision by the NBA as this will be the first ever day-night doubleheader in NBA history as these teams are expected to finish up Game 4 around 6:30 PM and then go right into Game 5 at 8:00 P…oh wait, I’m now being told that Saturday’s marathon actually did finish with the Bulls riding Nate Robinson to a stunning 142-134 3OT victory. It is a good thing that the Bulls were able to prevail in Game 4 because any time you have people comparing Nate Robinson’s performance to the infamous Sleepy Floyd Game in the 1987 Western Conference Semifinals, you pretty much cannot afford to waste that performance. We almost did not get to see most of the greatness, however. A blown dunk by C.J. Watson that would have put Brooklyn up 16 to play with 3:16 left in the game could have provided the dagger for Brooklyn and rendered Robinson’s performance irrelevant, but like the 3:16 verse in the Book of John states, instead it gave the Bulls everlasting life in a game that seemingly took forever. As we head into Game 5, the stakes are simple. For the Nets, it’s win or go home. For the Bulls, it’s win and head to Miami. I still think Brooklyn has one last gasp in them though.

Prediction: Brooklyn 96-91

Indiana at Atlanta (7:30 PM, NBA TV)

Surely the Law of Averages dictates that at least one of the games in this series will be relatively close, right? After the Pacers crushed the Hawks by 17 and 15 points in the confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the momentum shifted when the series headed back to Atlanta where Indiana only mustered a Celtics-esque 69 points in 21 point loss to the Hawks. George Hill and Lance Stephenson have to quickly block out and forget about whatever they were doing on Saturday night as they combined to go 2-15 from the field. Meanwhile, Al Horford was in Beast Mode as he busted out with a tidy little 26-16 performance. This is as close to a must win game as the Hawks could possibly face because there is no way they are taking three straight from Indiana if they lose tonight. Unfortunately for them, I see Hill and Stephenson’s performances as more of an aberration than a harbinger of things to come. Plus, I picked Indiana to win this series in five games, and I’m sticking by that.

Prediction: Indiana 98-88

Oklahoma City at Houston (9:30 PM, TNT)

As a basketball community, it is no secret that we are frequently driven by narratives. Whether it’s Tracy McGrady’s inability to get out of the first round, the Lakers problems that began in training camp and lasted through the end of the season, or a myriad of other talking points, we love looking at the same story through the context of different lenses and making it our own. Of course, one of the most popular narratives that we see over and over again is whether or not a team is secretly better without its best player in the lineup. Call it the Ewing Theory if you want, but just this year, we’ve seen it rear its head with Derrick Rose and the Bulls, Rajon Rondo and the Celtics, and now Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Let’s stop this right now; no, the Thunder, despite getting 41 points from Kevin Durant in Game 3, are not better off without Russell Westbrook. No, Westbrook was not holding Durant back in any way, shape, or form. Instead, what we saw in Game 3 was Durant putting a team that needed him on his shoulders and leading them to victory, even if he needed a little luck along the way. I mean, seriously, he broke eight laws of physics on this shot alone:

GIF via SBNation

So no, it’s not that Westbrook was getting in the way of KD; it’s just that the Durantula is really freaking good. And a majority of the time, the team with the best player on the floor wins the series. Houston, you have a problem, and his name is Kevin Durant.

Prediction: Oklahoma City 103-99

A World Without Westbrook

In sports, as in life, we get so used to certain presences that we’re unsure what to do once that presence fades. Tonight will be the first game Russell Westbrook has missed not just in his professional career, but in his entire sports career, high school included. That a player so devilish and reckless, so bruising and physical would be so immune to injury is somewhat unfathomable. Just as unbelievable will be tonight, when the Thunder takes the floor without Westbrook.

Two years ago, my parents, sister, and both grandmothers came in town for my college graduation. At dinner the night before the actual ceremony, my mom looked at me and asked where I was going to get my haircut from now on.

“What?” I asked, bemused. My mom had always had a propensity for asking questions that seemingly had little to do with the current conversation, and I figured this to be another instance. The beat of puzzled silence that follows these questions came, but the laughter that usually comes after, from both my mom and the rest of my family, didn’t.

“What?” I asked, this time concerned. I turned to my dad, but in the time it took for me to make eye contact with him, my brain had pieced it together. So, when I came face to face with my dad, instead of asking “what?” again, I simply, quietly, said, “no.”

“Jerry passed away,” my dad said, confirming my fear. Jerry, my barber for the better part of my entire life, had suffered a massive heart attack following a tennis game with his friend and business partner a few weeks prior. My dad waited to tell me because he didn’t want the news to interfere with school.

The loss of a barber may seem inconsequential to some, but it was profound to me. He wasn’t just a barber; he was my friend. We’d talk about the Chiefs, the Royals, the Jayhawks, fishing, movies, school and all of the common topics of conversation between men. Jerry had been there through all the phases, and corresponding hairstyles, of my life, from the short, simple “Princeton” haircut, to my unkempt, knotty, unmanageable Jewfro that required the use of a machete just to trim, and back to a shorter cut, less Slideshow Bob and more a shorter Harpo Marx.

I’d go off to summer camp, come back, then visit Jerry in the next few days. I’d go off to college, first at UConn then Tulsa, and almost every time I returned home, I’d call Jerry and ask if he had anything open. Usually, he did. He was always there, the very definition of a constant. And now he was gone.

Westbrook, for so young a player, has been a pivotal figure in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2008, a franchise cornerstone for a franchise that was soon to end. He was there for the Thunder’s inaugural season, a miserable, and turnover-prone one to be sure, but formative and integral to the development of the team and specifically the chemistry between Westbrook and Durant. He was there for the Thunder’s first playoff appearance, for the Jeff Green/Kendrick Perkins trade, the emergence of James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and started (and starred) in the NBA Finals just four years after being drafted. And through it all, he has been maligned, celebrated, jeered, scapegoated, praised, and an overall polarizing figure.

More than any other player on the Thunder, Westbrook has been the team’s constant. Nick Collison, though fully embraced by the Oklahoma City fans, will never wholly belong to them, as his history is just as much with the specters in Seattle. Jeff Green and James Harden were traded (to decidedly different fanfares, of course). Even Kevin Durant, the face of the franchise and the second best player in the NBA, has missed a few games because of injury. But not Russell Westbrook. He’s always been there, night in and night out, bad game or good game. He may cost them the game with a silly mistake, or he may win it with a daring feat of athleticism and skill, but either way, his presence has always been undeniable.

Good or bad, he was always there. It never crossed the minds of Thunder fans, and basketball fans at large, that he would ever not be. He’s fallen down hundreds of times, grimaced, limped, doubled over in pain, but he’s always come back, no matter what. His presence, nearly as much as his production, is what made him Russell Westbrook.

A few days after moving back to Kansas City, I made an appointment at Bock’s, where Jerry used to work. Pulling up to the shop, nerves, like so many corn kernels in a microwave, jumped and bounced and wrecked their way throughout my stomach. I pulled open the front door to see Bernie and Maurice, two other barbers, one of whom, Maurice, was Jerry’s brother.

Maurice tended to the first chair, while Bernie was stationed at the third. In the middle, unoccupied, untouched, was the second chair. Jerry’s chair. My appointment was with Bernie, whom I’d known just as long as Jerry. Inevitably, we talked about Jerry, and through the entire haircut my eyes rarely strayed from Jerry’s vacant chair, magnetic in its emptiness.

It was all so wrong, and I kept expecting Jerry to come out of the back room, or walk through the front door, or just be there. And every time I go back, I still wait for him to appear, and every time reality disappoints me.

When the news broke that Westbrook was out, first indefinitely, then later for the rest of the season, we were introduced to a reality we never thought could possibly exist: a world without Westbrook. It’s as uncharted a territory for the Thunder as it is for fans, navigated easily by neither. But navigate it they, and we, must. That  means more Reggie Jackson and (unfortunately) more Derek Fisher, the former unproven, the latter far past his prime, and neither enough to compensate.

It doesn’t, and won’t, seem right for the Thunder to play without Russell Westbrook. We’ll look to the court, wondering where the dynamic guard is before catching ourselves and remembering that the Thunder’s greatest constant is now, in more than one way, their greatest absence.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 4/25/13: ONE GOOD GAME OUT OF THREE AIN’T BAD

 

Lion Face. Lemon Face. Good moments. Bad moments. You guys know the drill by now. Let’s do this.

Lion Face: Roy Hibbert’s dunk

Few men have done things like this to Ivan Johnson and lived to tell about it. Hibbert managed to save his best dunk of the year for the playoffs with this one. Just to show off, Hibbert would then proceed to knock down a three pointer at the end of the first quarter that was eventually waved off as it came a split second after the clock expired. Still though, a solid two minute stretch for Hibbert.

Lemon Face: Danny Crawford

Greg Smith threw down a strong dunk over Serge Ibaka, then got T’d up by Danny Crawford because he…well you see you can’t…uhhhh…yeah…Apparently Smith looked too menacingly toward Ibaka which drew him a technical. A rare controversial call from one of the Crawford brothers. Who would have guessed?

Lion Face: The George Boys

Paul George and George Hill carried the load for Indiana last night by providing 49 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and 6 steals between them. The G2 zone at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse was rocking as the Pacers took care of business in a series that can’t conclude quick enough.

Lemon Face: Patrick Beverley’s dirty play

GIF via SBNation

In the second quarter of the Thunder-Rockets game, Russell Westbrook was casually bringing the ball up the court to call a timeout as teams tend to do literally hundreds of time every season. Rather than allowing Westbrook to get the easy timeout, Beverley instead attempted a steal the ball. While I’m all for playing until the whistle blows, the angle Beverley took resulted in him colliding with Westbrook’s knee which initially looked like it caused damage. Westbrook would continue to play on, but the jostling between Westbrook and Beverley may be something to watch for the rest of the series as there is clearly bad blood between the two.

Lion Face: Pacers end of quarter play

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARB85gVzHpQ

Play of the night? Play of the night.

Lemon Face: Houston’s end of game possession

With 11 seconds remaining and trailing by four points, Houston had the ball following a missed Kevin Martin free throw. In this situation, you either want an extremely quick two or relative quick three point attempt. The opposite of what you want is running nearly 10 seconds off the clock and getting a seven foot floater out of it. Patrick Beverley knocked down the shot, but that effectively ended any chance that Houston had to steal a game on the road from Oklahoma City which I can only assume led to Thunder fans across the nation chanting…

Lion Face: This

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-yVV-ugC-k

No comment.

Lion Face: Kawhi Leonard

GIF via SBNation

If you tell me that you’ve never done this on an eight-foot hoop in your backyard, either you’re lying or I weep for your childhood. In addition to this alley oop, Leonard finished the first half with 14 points on 7-10 shooting in 20 minutes of play. His performance begs the question, Kawhi haven’t you been paying attention to him this series? (I’m so sorry for that.)

Lemon Face: Steve Nash v. the Spurs

 

 

While Nash and the Lakers entered the season dreaming of a championship, in reality it has been a nightmare for them. After playing in at least 85% of games every season from 2000-2012, Nash has battled injuries all year as age has finally caught up to him. He gritted his way through last night’s game but was largely overshadowed by Steve Blake’s surprisingly impressive performance.

Lion Face: Manu Ginobili

After missing nine of the Spurs last 10 games of the year with a strained hamstring, Ginobili’s health was up in the air heading into the playoffs. Well, at least that’s what Gregg Popovich and the Spurs wanted you to believe. Instead, Ginobili has looked as good as can be in Games 1 and 2. In the first half alone, Ginobili  scored 12 points on 4-5 shooting (3-4 from beyond the arc) while dishing out four assists. Can you say efficient?

Lemon Face: This Sports Illustrated Pre-Season Cover

SICover

Well, technically, it has been fun…provided you’re not a Lakers fan. Unfortunately for Lakers fans and those who enjoy schadenfreude at the expense of the Lakers dismal performance this year, their season, barring a miracle that may need to be confirmed by the Vatican, appears to be rapidly coming to an end.

BONUS Lion Face: THAT PASS

GIF via @cjzero

Usually I try to have an equal amount of Lion Faces and Lemon Faces to balance everything out, but then Manu Ginobili decided to do this at the end of the game and there’s just absolutely no way I could not include it, so I’ll leave you with this.